Dana Leong Trio at One New York Plaza
Lowdown Hudson Blues Festival 2012

City Noir: John Adams Leads Juilliard and Royal Academy of Music Orchestras

by Michael Cirigliano II

John Adams, Juilliard, Royal Academy of Music, Imogen Cooper, Avery Fisher Hall, Feast of Music

I’ve always admired the relationship fostered by the Juilliard School and London’s Royal Academy of Music [and not just because I’m a graduate of the latter]. It’s quite a testament to the current strength of international conservatory training that student musicians can meet once every several years for a side-by-side concert of professional-level caliber, and Wednesday’s concert at Avery Fisher Hall was certainly no exception.

John Adams led the combined orchestras in two heavyweight compositions, Respighi’s rich Roman Festivals and Adams’ own City Noir. Unfortunately, due to some disorganized ticketing procedures and the fact that this concert actually started right on time, I was only able to take in the Respighi from outside the hall doors, but the sight of the titanic orchestra [we’re talking 12 cellos and 10 basses alone!] was awe-inspiring.

All of the elements were present for a successful performance of this often-performed work: brilliant brass fanfares, led by an immaculate principal trumpet; glossy strings; and evocative writing for the percussion, piano, and celeste. As I mentioned when reviewing the Juilliard Orchestra’s final concert of the season in May, there is something special about the vitality of youth that makes performances of showboat pieces like these more satisfying to behold than those of most professional orchestras.

Although given a top-notch performance, Adams’ City Noir still failed to captivate my ears. It has taken on quite a busy performance life since its premiere by Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, but even in this clear context, the piece is muddy and over-scored. Much of the work relies on atmosphere rather than content, which leaves the ear wanting to hear much more resolve than it ever receives. Virtuosic solo work from the alto saxophone and principal trombone were displays of incredible technique, but failed to provide more than a structured feel of forced improvisation. Still, Adams led the orchestra with deep confidence, and even the densest passages were delivered with precision.

The centerpiece of the concert was a brilliant performance of the Ravel Piano Concerto in G Major by the British pianist Imogen Cooper. Although best known for her authoritative Schubert interpretations, Cooper brought a great sense of vitality and clarity to her performance of the Ravel. Highly influenced by Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, the concerto is spiky, rhythmic, and often relentless in its development of brisk musical materials.

Cooper’s technique held its poise even throughout the most energetic passages, but the real highlight was the very Viennese middle movement, in which a pianist’s sense of voicing makes or breaks the performance. Cooper performed as if it were an intimate Bach chorale she was discovering for the first time, accompanied by glorious solos from the orchestra’s various woodwind colors and French horns.

Amazingly enough, Cooper and Adams seemed to be just as thrilled to be working with the student forces as the students were to be playing with two of the most respected figures in modern classical music.